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Filmmaker Chris Hilton on the Anti-Communist Purges in Indonesia in 1965-66

Shadow Play (2001)

Shadow Play (2001)

You also say in the documentary that the New York Times applauded Suharto's takeover, saying it was a "gleam of light in Asia". This perhaps is to be expected from an establishment newspaper but was there any other opposing coverage in this country at the time?

I think all the coverage was more or less the same. All this happened in a place a long way away at a time when US troops were on the ground in Vietnam in numbers unprecedented since World War II, so there was obviously major concern about that. Nothing was known really about what happened in Indonesia and because the Indonesian army and the Australians, the British, and the Americans, had such control over the information that was made public, nothing was really known. Ultimately this anti-Communist operation was simply passed off in the West and elsewhere as a civil war. The information was controlled quite effectively; the true story did not get out at all.

It is quite striking that none of the American government officials interviewed in the documentary expressed much remorse about their involvement in what the CIA itself has termed "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century". Is it the case that much of the American foreign policy establishment still believes that there were no other options given the fear of Indonesia coming under the influence of China (and the attendant "domino theory" consequences)?

Yes, pretty much. It is difficult to speculate but in Cambodia, Pol Pot took over with his mad Maoist ideas and killed 1.7 million people. There is no doubt that there was a very, very strong communist party in Indonesia that was coming under the influence more and more of China. This is the period when the Cultural Revolution was on and the temperature was rising in Indonesia. It had been through the previous 15 years of the Cold War and although Indonesia had tried to remain neutral, it had become polarized inside. There were anti-communists threatening the communists, and vice versa.

The tensions were high in Indonesia. The West was very keen for an anti-communist victory and wanted to do what they could to make sure it would happen. But did they premeditate the deaths of 500,000-1 million people? No. Could they have predicted the deaths? Probably.

So in a sense they can feel guilt-free because they can say that they could not have predicted a massacre on that scale.

The problem is that there is still a lot we do not know. Was the CIA involved or not, for instance? I grilled this head of station for four hours and I know these people are taught how to lie and so forth, so we had all sorts of tricky questions for him, but we weren't able to get him to admit to anything.

In any case, it is quite inconceivable to me that the whole murder of the generals was a plot conceived in Washington.

What responses do you expect in the US to this documentary being aired? You said earlier, and I wasn't aware of this, that there are two versions of the documentary: a 79-minute one which is being aired in Britain, Australia and Finland and a shorter one for the US. Why was there a shorter version for PBS?

Slot length had something to do with it. Most TV stations operate on a one-hour turnaround, so PBS wanted a shorter length. Maybe they felt that a massacre movie would not hold the interest of the viewers for 79 minutes; you have to be pretty dedicated to watch a forensic analysis of a massacre for that long.